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Social services agency probed

A committee is looking at whether the Department of Children and Families mishandled supervision.

By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 9, 2002

Prompted by reports of falsified records, overbilling and conflicts of interest, state lawmakers have launched an investigation into Florida's social services agency and the private companies it hires.

House Speaker Tom Feeney appointed a special committee to probe whether the Department of Children and Families, or DCF, botched its supervision of companies it hired to investigate child abuse and care for the mentally ill.

In particular, the bipartisan committee will study how closely the department monitored a Pinellas Park nonprofit organization that was hired to finish investigating old child abuse cases for the department. The company now is being audited by DCF, following allegations that workers may have falsified records while under pressure to close cases quickly. The company denies the claims.

The committee also will study Lakeside Alternatives, an Orlando-area mental health center that allegedly overbilled the state by $1.3-million and where foster children as young as 3 spent months locked up, even though some were not even mentally ill, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

"There's an underlying problem in the department," said Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa, who was appointed by Feeney to chair the House Select Committee on Oversight of Florida's Department of Children and Family Services.

"I think the bottom line is that there's just a lack of oversight over the people that the department's contracting with," Murman added.

Creating the committee puts the Republican-led House in the awkward position of probing during an election year possible mismanagement by Gov. Jeb Bush's administration. Feeney made the announcement after hearing from constituents and other lawmakers and after a series of reports in the St. Petersburg Times and newspapers in Miami and Orlando.

Feeney said in a prepared statement that DCF has made "dramatic improvements" since the Bush administration took over its management three years ago. But he added that "residues of some other significant problems appear to be unresolved."

Feeney's office said the committee would investigate the following: "allegations of billing practices, record keeping at Lakeside Alternatives, enormous backlog of child abuse cases, Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health contracting policies and procedures, lack of oversight of contracts for providers in child abuse investigations, and conflicts of interest within DCF."

But Murman made it clear the committee was not on a DCF-bashing mission. She praised DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney as someone who "has come in with a very difficult task. I think she's done an admirable job."

Kearney said in a prepared statement that she would "look forward to discussing the challenges we face in serving Florida's most vulnerable children and working collaboratively with the Legislature to find solutions."

DCF last month fired the Pinellas Park-based Florida Task Force for the Protection of Abused and Neglected Children amid the allegations of rushed work and questionable practices.

Murman said the revelation that the task force hired investigators previously fired from similar jobs with the state -- first reported in the St. Petersburg Times -- was particularly troubling.

-- Times Staff Writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at krueger@sptimes.com or by calling (727) 893-8232.

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